Neera sat in a circular booth in the VIP section of the high-end sex club, Depravity. Dark, grinding dance music thumped loud enough to cause the empty Glint bottles on the table to jump with each pounding bass hit. On the elevated stage in the middle of the club, a pair of nude Syntech-powered Dancers gyrated against each other, their tongues intertwining as they kissed.
The sides of the club were lined with small private rooms, where digital distortion fields obscured the intimate—often disturbing, sometimes illegal—activities taking place inside. The distortion allowed just enough of a glimpse to be titillating, by intelligently blinking to full transparency when the booth AI detected a particularly lascivious moment. The brief tease was an effective way to drive demand for the club’s Personal Service attendants. It was like offering a few free bumps of merk to a new customer to get them hooked. Of course, the club did that too.
Wedged into the booth across from Neera was Artem Golovkin, a wealthy oligarch with deep ties to Sino-Soviet organized crime. His right eyelid sagged under a thin scar that cut diagonally across his eyebrow, a present from a now-deceased cellmate at Rancor Island Prison.
Neera had heard rumors about Artem from several contacts on the street over the years, about him having a device—an interrupter—that could override a Syntech siffo. Unfortunately, you couldn’t just walk into a store and buy an interrupter. Each unit was hand-made by a lone genius working exclusively for Artem. If you wanted one, you had to offer Artem something he didn’t have and couldn’t buy. Something that would add a few extra zeroes to the end of his bank account.
Something like an Ironwill auth key.
With the auth key, Artem could siphon cash from the accounts of his rival oligarchs, enriching himself while undercutting his competitors. Of course, when he actually tried to use the auth key, he’d inevitably find that it had been deactivated by Ironwill’s cybersecurity team. Two Sentinels plummeting to their deaths from the window of the CEO’s office would inevitably raise some suspicions. It didn’t matter to Neera though—by the time Artem realized he’d been conned, she would be long gone, interrupter and all.
Neera watched Artem’s fat, bearded face as he examined the auth key in the pool of white light spilling from the stylish lighting fixture overhead.
“How much?” Artem shouted over the music in his thick Slavic accent.
“It’s not for sale.”
Neera slid around the booth to Artem’s side and spoke into his ear. Artem nodded, then motioned to one of his hulking henchmen standing nearby. As the henchman approached the table, Neera noticed the siffo embedded behind his ear. A Syntech Bodyguard. It looked like Artem was one of Syntech’s best customers. And its worst, if the rumors about interrupters were to be believed.
The henchman leaned across the table. His suit jacket fell open, revealing a pair of handguns in holsters on both sides of his chest. Neera suddenly became hyper-aware of her own 9mm, which was tucked into the waistband of her jeans. She hoped she wouldn’t need to use it.
The henchman’s nicotine-tinged breath wafted across Neera’s face as he spoke.
“What’s up, boss?”
“Take her to the back.”
This is it?
Neera turned the interrupter over in her hands. It was a small electronic device about half the size of a cigarette pack, wrapped in black rubberized tape. A single LED button glowed green at one end. She had expected the thing to be stylish and high-tech, something befitting of its exorbitant price and mythical reputation. Instead, it looked like a high school science project. A bad one.
She was in the club’s sprawling supply room, surrounded by shelves lined with bar-sized bottles of Glint, racks of glassware, and cases of condoms and lube. The muffled thrum of the music was still audible, even through the thick cinderblock walls. Large wooden crates with spray-painted Cyrillic writing were stacked along one wall. The lid of one of the crates had been pried off and was resting askew across the top. Neera didn’t need to be a weapons expert to recognize the SN640 pulse rifles inside—they were the most recognizable killing machines on the planet. Just another one of Artem’s many side businesses, she supposed.
“So, how does this thing work?” she asked Artem.
“Vim!” Artem walked up behind a weasel-faced man sitting at a workbench surrounded by haphazard piles of electronic components, 3D printers, and soldering rigs. The man’s head bobbed to the music in his bulky over-ear headphones as he typed code into a terminal. “Vim! Explain your thing to her.”
“Busy …” Vim muttered. He kept typing, his mechanical keyboard clacking loudly under his fingers.
“Hey!” Artem snapped his fingers in front of Vim’s face. “You hear what I said?”
Vim spun in his chair toward Artem. He tore his headphones off and tossed them on the workbench. “Can you see that I’m busy? You can see that, right? Me? Being busy?”
Artem grabbed Vim by his shirt and yanked him to his feet. “Tell her how it works,” he growled.
“Fine …” Vim said. Artem released him. Vim adjusted his shirt, then plunked down in his chair and swiveled toward Neera. “You know what a siffo is?”
“Yeah. The Syntech thing.”
“You know what it does?”
“Not really, no.”
“All right. So, your brain has what’s called a cemi field, which is basically an electromagnetic field generated by billions of action potentials firing synchronously every second. What we experience as consciousness is really just the effect the cemi field has on your neurons, which in turn makes you feel like you’re thinking.” He recognized the puzzled look on Neera’s face. “I’m losing you.”
“No, I get it,” Neera insisted, despite her confusion.
Vim glanced at Artem as if to say, I can’t believe you’re wasting my time with this. He sighed, then tried a different approach. “Are you married?”
Neera hesitated. “Um …”
“Lady, it’s not a trick question. Are you married or not?”
“I was.” She shook her head, then corrected herself. “Am. Yes. I am.”
“You and your husband, you probably really click, right? Like, you two just get each other?”
Neera thought back to the last time she saw Delek. He definitely didn’t get her then, and she didn’t get him either. She could barely remember a time when they were on the same page about anything. They argued about everything: money, work, Sev. Especially Sev. How they should treat him, where they should treat him, how they were going to pay for it. Delek had insisted on signing up with Syntech based on some fanciful promise that they’d take care of her and Sev in his absence. She begged him not to go through with it—not just on the day he left, but for weeks before—but he had already made up his mind. Nothing she said was going to change that. It was like he didn’t even hear her. Or maybe he did. He just wasn’t listening.
Of course, she wasn’t going to dump all that personal baggage on Vim. Instead, she said, “We did at one point, yeah.”
“When you first met?”
Neera smiled fondly at the memory. “It was like he could read my mind.”
Vim clapped his hands and pointed at Neera. “Yes! That! That is the cemi field. Your cemi field and his were vibrating at very similar frequencies. That’s why you fell for each other. You were literally on the same wavelength. And the more time you spent together, the more your cemi fields fell into sync. What most people experience as ‘falling in love’ is really just the gradual synchronization of their cemi fields.”
The absurdity of the explanation—and the passion with which Vim delivered it—was too much for Neera. She covered her mouth to suppress a laugh.
Vim’s expression fell. “What?”
“I’m sorry, I just … That’s very romantic, Vim.”
“Hey, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Cemi fields can fall out of sync too. That’s usually when shit goes off the rails. Suddenly, everything he does annoys you, and you’re like, ‘Ugh, why is he blinking his eyes like that?’ Or, ‘I hate the way he chews.’ That sort of thing.”
Neera smiled and nodded, recalling the way Delek used to unconsciously tap his finger against his skull while he was thinking. The sound drove her crazy.
“Anyway,” Vim continued. “A siffo overrides your cemi field with a field generated by Syntech’s chip, so instead of your own conscious thoughts, you’re getting thoughts from their AI instead. You experience the thoughts as your own—as reality—but they’re not. Everything is coming from the chip. Syntech could make you see flying elephants if they wanted to. But that little beauty …” He pointed to the interrupter in Neera’s hand. “That interrupts the signal from Syntech’s chip and puts the person’s cemi field back in control.”
Neera nodded thoughtfully. She turned the interrupter over in her hand. “How do I use it?”
“Just push the button.”
“Like this?” Neera pressed the green LED button on top of the interrupter with her thumb. The LED turned red, followed by an electronic whine so high-pitched it was barely audible.
“The hell?” a deep voice from behind Neera said. She turned to see Artem’s henchman rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. The man dropped his hand from his face and looked at the others in the supply room through squinted eyes. “Who are you?” He pivoted his head on his neck, taking in his unusual surroundings. “Where am I?”
“Shit,” Artem mumbled. He pointed at the device in Neera’s hand. “Can you …?”
“Oh, sure.” She pressed the button again. It changed from red to green. The high-pitched whine cut out. The henchman’s eyes cleared. He seemed to notice for the first time that everyone in the room was staring at him.
“What? Y’all good?”
Artem held up the Ironwill auth key to Neera and wiggled it between his fingers. “We good?”
“Yeah.” Neera tucked the interrupter into her jacket pocket. “We’re good.”
“Hello, little one,” Zahara said. At well over six feet tall, Zahara towered over Neera. She was a striking Sudanese beauty with high cheekbones and short, reddish-brown twists in her hair. “Come in, come in.” Zahara ushered Neera into her basement apartment.
The place was stuffy and dim, lit only by a pair of small lamps with heavy beaded shades the color of fresh cranberries. Incense smoke drifted in lazy spirals through the air. The furniture was an eclectic mix of thrift store cast-offs in an assortment of clashing colors and patterns.
“Did you get it?” Zahara asked. Neera reached into her jacket pocket and produced the interrupter. Zahara grinned broadly and offered Neera a fist bump. “My queen.” Neera returned the fist bump. “Think it’ll work?”
“It better.” Neera tucked the interrupter back into her pocket. “Let’s call Bresh.” She noticed Zahara’s expression change. “What?”
Zahara winced. “We can’t.”
“I told you about his little side hustle?”
“With the merk?”
“Yeah. Turns out his stupid ass was dealing out of his van like he was the goddamn ice cream man. And Quan found out.”
Neera’s stomach plummeted. “Oh no.”
“Dude camped out behind one of the Syntech lockers along Bresh’s route. As soon as Bresh pulled up, Quan dragged him out of the van, beat his ass, then ran him over. Like, eight times.”
“Not yet, but …” Zahara shook her head sadly.
Neera sank to the couch, defeated. Bresh was her key to locating Delek. He worked for a Syntech affiliate called The Body Shop, picking up Sentinels and other Syntech units that had been killed or maimed on the job. His job gave him access to Syntech’s inventory system, which kept track of where every active Sentinel was assigned. Neera had promised Bresh that, if he could help her find Delek, she would make it worth his while.
A bolt of frustrated rage surged through Neera’s body. “Fuck!” She punched the couch cushion, then braced her arms on her thighs and let her hands and her head hang toward the floor. “Goddamnit.” She looked up at Zahara. Her eyes were red and wet. “I’m this close.” She held her fingers an inch apart.
“I know, honey.” Zahara sat down next to Neera and put a sympathetic hand on her back. “I know.”
Neera racked her brain for ideas. The inventory computer was in the van that Bresh had been driving for The Body Shop. From what she understood, the computer required biometric input—a thumbprint—to unlock it, but maybe she could figure that out. It didn’t sound like Bresh would be needing his thumbs any time soon. “What about the van?” she asked Zahara. “What happened to that?”
“Before or after Quan set it on fire?”
All right, so Bresh’s van was out of the question. But it wasn’t the only one. There had to be dozens of them around the city. “Is there anyone else? A friend of his? Another driver?”
Zahara shrugged. “Sorry.”
Neera stood and walked over to the thin sidewalk-level window. As she stared out at the pedestrians’ passing feet, a car pulled up to the curb outside and parked. An idea flashed in Neera’s eyes. She turned back to Zahara.
“Where’d it happen?”
“Southside. By the Stacks there. You know where I mean?”
Neera grabbed Zahara’s jacket off a hook on the wall and tossed it to her.
The Stacks was a large industrial area on the south side of the city, so-called because of the dozens of smokestacks that belched noxious black smoke into the air. It wasn’t surprising that The Body Shop would be doing rounds there. Most of the factories were operating illegally, manufacturing everything from low-quality electronics to high explosives. The owners often employed Sentinels to patrol the grounds.
Neera rode the subway with Zahara to the zone where Bresh had been attacked by Quan. Within minutes, they found the exact spot where the attack had happened—there was a large rectangular scorch mark on the street where the burning van had melted the asphalt. And just as Neera suspected, there was a Syntech storage unit right nearby.
Once Neera found the site of Bresh’s demise, she sent Zahara home. There was no point in making her friend stay. She didn’t know how long she’d have to wait.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long.
Neera watched from the shadows as a filthy black van pulled up to the curb outside the factory building where she was hiding. The side of the van was stenciled with a logo: The Body Shop. Below the logo in a smaller font were the words, A Syntech Company.
The door of the van creaked open and a man in a bright green jumpsuit climbed out. Neera recognized the outfit—it was the same one Bresh wore when he made his rounds. The guy was clearly Bresh’s replacement. He had the same uniform. The same kind of van. And, if Neera was right, the same Syntech inventory computer inside.
The driver wheeled a portable gurney over to the Syntech storage unit and swiped his key card through a slot on the front. The storage unit’s door slid open with a quiet whoosh, revealing a naked man hanging from a hook inside: a Sentinel. Its muscled torso was riddled with a half-dozen bullet holes. Rusty streaks of dried blood were smeared across its bluish-gray skin.
The driver hauled the limp body out of the storage unit and dumped it face-down on the gurney. After depositing the body in the back of the van, he slammed the doors closed, returned the gurney to its slot, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
Neera was in the van waiting for him. She pointed her 9mm at his head. “Where’s Delek Foster?”
The driver’s face went pale. “W-who?”
“Delek Foster!” Neera said again, more forcefully. She thrust the gun closer to the driver’s face. “Where is he?”
“I-I don’t know! I don’t know who that is.”
“He’s a Sentinel.” Neera nodded her head toward the grimy tablet screen mounted to the center of the dashboard. “Find him.”
The driver pressed his thumb against the dash-mounted biometric scanner. The tablet unlocked, revealing a map of the city dotted with small green icons representing other pickup locations. “Hey, dispatch?” the driver said. “Find by name.” The tablet’s voice recognition made a confirmation tone. The driver signaled to Neera to say the name.
“Delek Foster,” she said, enunciating clearly.
“Locating,” an automated voice from the tablet responded. After a moment, the voice said:
The Body Shop van slowed to a stop in front of a massive multi-story warehouse located on the edge of a shipping port. A cacophony of overlapping clanks and mechanical whirs echoed between the buildings as the port’s loaders moved shipping containers onto and off of mile-long barges docked at the water’s edge.
Neera exited the driver’s side of the van. She had left the van’s original driver behind at the last location, but not before relieving him of his key card. She tucked her 9mm into the back of her jeans, then looked up at the warehouse.
The flickering sign on the front identified it as belonging to AG Imports. Beside the building, the fog drifted lazily between rows of industrial cargo mechs sitting idle and dark behind high iron fences topped with razor wire. A crooked, rust-scarred sign warned of armed Sentinels patrolling the premises. She was in the right place.
Neera walked quickly over to the black storage unit with the Syntech logo glowing green on the side. It was identical to the one at the last location. She swiped the stolen ID card through the slot. The storage unit door slid open. It was empty.
She stepped inside.
“We expecting anything from Syntech?” The shipping clerk squinted out the window at the black van parked by the curb. He was a young guy with a thick head of curly red hair and a round belly hanging over his belt. His name was Timm.
“Don’t think so,” his coworker said through a mouthful of burrito. He didn’t look up from the porn video he was watching on his tablet.
“Hmm,” Timm murmured. “Weird.” He scooped up a lanyard from his desk and pushed through the atrium doors to the exit. Swinging the lanyard around on his finger, he sauntered down the sidewalk to the Syntech storage unit and swiped the key card. The door slid open to reveal Neera. She pointed a gun directly at Timm’s face. His eyes went wide. He raised his hands.
“Quiet,” Neera hissed. Keeping the gun trained on the frightened clerk, she stepped out of the storage unit and shoved the man toward the entrance to the warehouse. “Inside. Go.”
Hands still raised, Timm walked quickly back to the atrium and scanned his palm on the biometric reader next to the door. He entered the atrium. Neera followed close behind.
Once inside, Timm paused. “N-now what?”
Timm turned toward Neera, his brow twisted in confusion. “What?”
“You heard me. Call security.”
Still not sure if the woman was serious, Timm kept his eyes on Neera as he tentatively called out to his co-worker. “Hey, Sam?”
A voice rang out from inside the shipping office. “Yo!”
“Can you, uh …” Timm paused to double-check whether Neera was serious. She nodded. “Can you call security, please?”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Timm’s co-worker, Sam, appeared at the door of the shipping office, his half-eaten burrito still in hand. He saw Neera pointing the gun at Timm’s head. “Oh. Shit.”
Neera watched from a catwalk overlooking the warehouse floor as a pair of Sentinels trotted down the center aisle to where Timm and Sam were waiting. Neither of the Sentinels was Delek.
Neera listened as the two shipping clerks explained how some crazy woman had held them at gunpoint, insisted that they call security, then had disappeared into the shadows of the warehouse. No, they didn’t know what she wanted. No, they didn’t know if she was still in the building. No, they hadn’t seen which direction she went.
Neera scanned the length of the warehouse, desperate to confirm that her husband was even in the building. Had she gotten the address wrong? Were the Syntech records out-of-date? Had something happened to him? Damn it, Delek, she thought, trying to suppress a feeling of panicked desperation. Where are you?
Then she saw him.
He was stationed at the far end of the warehouse, near an open loading dock. He was wearing the same all-black uniform as the other Sentinels, with an SN640 pulse rifle gripped in both hands. He held a finger to his earpiece. “Copy that.” He flicked the safety off his weapon, then stepped silently toward the right side of the warehouse.
Neera removed the interrupter from her pocket and moved along the catwalk in Delek’s direction. She knew she had to get within close-enough range for the device to work. The only problem was, she didn’t know how close she needed to be. She had neglected to ask Vim for the specifics.
She peered over the catwalk railing. The warehouse floor was at least twenty feet below. Delek would be directly beneath her within seconds, but she thought it unlikely that triggering the interrupter from such a height would work. She would need to get closer, to climb down to ground level. She turned to look at the ladder she had climbed to get up to the catwalk in the first place. It was too far in the opposite direction. There had to be one closer—
Suddenly, a blinding light shone in Neera’s eyes.
“Freeze!” a voice commanded, the sound echoing through the cavernous warehouse. “Hands up! Don’t move!” Neera’s stomach lurched. She recognized the voice.
It was Delek’s.
Delek looked up at the woman on the catwalk overhead. “If she blinks, blow her brains out.”
“Yes, sir,” the Sentinel named Harlow replied. He held his sights on the woman’s head, a red laser centered between her eyes. “Keep your hands up!” Harlow bellowed at the woman. “If you move, we will shoot you.”
Another Sentinel named Grace had the intruder sighted from a different angle, her laser focused on the woman’s heart. “We’ve got you covered,” Grace reported.
Delek slung his weapon around his back and began climbing up to the catwalk.
He had spotted the woman by chance, catching a glimpse of a small green LED hovering in the air far overhead, at the edge of his peripheral vision. He looked up to see a white woman with an athletic build and short blonde hair crouching on the catwalk over his head. She didn’t match the description provided by the shipping clerks, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t supposed to be up there.
Once on the catwalk, Delek unslung his weapon and moved quickly toward the woman. As he drew closer, he saw the handle of a 9mm pistol protruding from the waistband of her jeans. He tightened his grip on his pulse rifle. “Don’t move,” he ordered. “Keep your hands up.”
The woman remained frozen, her arms high in the air. Delek noticed that she had a small black device clutched in one hand, her thumb poised over a green LED button at the end. A detonator? No. He didn’t detect any traces of explosives on her.
Delek moved within arm’s reach, then snatched the pistol from the woman’s waistband and tucked it into his own. He removed a pair of handcuffs from his belt and clamped one of the electronic rings around her left wrist, then bent the cuffed arm down behind her back. As he reached up to grab the other arm, the woman’s thumb pressed the green LED button on the device in her hand. The light turned from green to red. A high-pitched whine rang in his ears.
“Delek?” the woman said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, wondering how she could have known his name. He lowered her other arm and closed the cuff around it. Then he plucked the device from her palm and tossed it into the darkness. It clattered to the ground somewhere far below.
The woman looked over her shoulder at him. “You don’t recognize me.”
“No, ma’am. Can’t say I do. Now, let’s go.” He grabbed the woman by the bicep and pushed her ahead of him down the catwalk. “Mr. Golovkin will want to have a word with you.”
It didn’t work, Neera thought to herself wildly. Why didn’t it work?
She was convinced that she had done something wrong with the interrupter, right up until she heard Delek say Artem Golovkin’s last name.
She cursed herself for not having made the connection earlier: AG Imports. Artem Golovkin. It was so obvious in retrospect. Not that she expected to find Delek working for Artem—she had no reason to suspect he would be, and she doubted Artem had connected the dots either. He probably had hundreds of Syntech units in his employ; Delek was likely just another faceless drone to him.
Neera was handcuffed on a ratty couch in the shipping office, awaiting Artem’s impending arrival. She could only hope he hadn’t tried using the Ironwill auth key yet. If he hadn’t, she might be able to talk her way out of the situation, explaining her efforts to extract Delek from Syntech’s control. But if he had tried the key—and if it had failed, which was almost certain—she would be in deep shit.
Neera looked over at Delek. He was standing by the door, back straight, eyes forward, his weapon held across his chest. He showed no signs of recognition whatsoever. It was like he had never seen her before. But then again, who knew what he was seeing? Based on how Vim had explained it, Delek would see what the Syntech AI wanted him to see. Flying elephants or whatever. Neera wasn’t sure if he didn’t recognize her, or if he wasn’t even seeing her in the first place. Did it matter though? The result was the same. Either way, she was fucked.
The thought of Vim made Neera’s jaw clench. His interrupter didn’t work. Was it defective? Or was it a con? Neera sighed. Yet another distinction without a difference. Whatever the reason, Delek was still under the influence of Syntech’s AI. His cemi field was still overridden. Whatever wavelength it was vibrating at, it wasn’t his own. And it certainly wasn’t hers, either. So much for the romance of cemi field synchronization.
A commotion outside the office broke Neera from her thoughts. She heard Artem’s booming voice echoing in the atrium as he tore into the building, howling expletives in his heavy Slavic accent. When he was finished upbraiding Timm and Sam, he stormed through the door of the shipping office where Neera sat. Upon seeing her, he immediately ground to a halt, his face a mixture of confusion and rage. “You?”
“Mr. Golovkin, I can explain—”
Before she could finish, Neera found herself being lifted off the couch. Artem pulled her within an inch of his face. She could smell his breath, a sour mixture of Turkish coffee and clove cigarettes. The telltale odor of vaporized merk hung in a sour cloud around him. His pupils were wide black chasms. The man was out of his mind.
“Your auth key was shit,” he growled. He threw her backward with both hands, sending her crashing into the wall behind the couch. Delek didn’t react. He remained at his station by the door. He didn’t even look in her direction.
“Then I guess …”—Neera gasped—“we’re even.” She immediately regretted answering with such attitude, but she couldn’t help herself. “Your interrupter is shit too.”
Artem laughed. “Of course it is. Vim makes those things by the hundreds. Twenty cents each, and people will give their life savings for one. The margins are incredible.” His stomach bounced with another hearty chuckle. “Who are you? Where am I?” he droned, mimicking the henchman who had allegedly been affected by the interrupter when Neera first tested it. He laughed again. “Worst actor ever. Or the best, I don’t know. You fell for it.”
Neera scowled in disgust. “You’re pathetic.”
Artem’s grin dissolved into an animal snarl. He grabbed Neera by the dreadlocks, dragged her off the couch, and threw her to the ground. With her hands still cuffed behind her back, she was unable to break her fall. She hit the floor face-first, then rolled onto her side just in time to see Artem’s boot swinging for her stomach. She managed to draw her knees up enough to partially deflect the blow, but he still hit her hard enough to knock the wind out of her. A stabbing pain ricocheted through her body. She cried out in agony.
The sound of her scream seemed to capture Delek’s attention. He glanced down at her with something resembling concern. He winced, seemingly in pain himself, then lifted his finger to his right ear as if listening to an earpiece.
Neera made eye contact with him as she struggled to speak through bloodied lips.
“Delek …” she wheezed, her voice a breathless rasp. “Help … me …”
Then Artem’s boot swung for her head.
At first, Delek wasn’t sure why Mr. Golovkin was so angry with the woman. But once they started arguing, it became obvious that the woman wasn’t just some random intruder. She had given or sold something to Mr. Golovkin that didn’t work as expected, and he had done the same to her.
Out of the corner of his eye, Delek saw his boss grab the woman by the hair and throw her to the ground. Delek flinched a little as she hit the floor face-first. For a split second, a ghostly image flickered in his peripheral vision. It was just a momentary glitch, as if a frame from one movie had been swapped into a completely different film: the fair-skinned, blonde-haired woman was replaced by a woman with darker skin and dreadlocks. An electronic whine began to pulse in Delek’s right ear. The sound dulled his senses, as if his mental reflexes were somehow impaired. He felt drugged.
Delek turned his head to confirm what he had seen, but the effect was gone. He watched as Mr. Golovkin reared his leg back and kicked the woman in the stomach. The volume of the whine in Delek’s ear spiked with the blow. This time it was joined by another sound, a second tone out of phase with the first. The clash of the two sounds produced a jarring, discordant squeal, like a pair of violins badly out of tune with each other. Delek reflexively pressed his finger into his ear to block out the sound, but it made no difference. The sound wasn’t in his ear. It was in his head.
The woman’s eyes locked with his. Suddenly, the sound vibrating in Delek’s head transformed from two separate, inharmonious notes to a single sinusoidal tone, pure and crystal clear, a sound like a wet finger tracing the rim of a wine glass, or a Tibetan singing bowl oscillating at just the right frequency. It was perfectly resonant. Perfectly tuned.
Delek blinked. He was no longer seeing a blonde woman with blue eyes and fair skin. Instead, the woman had dark eyes and dark skin. Her blonde pixie cut had turned into a dark bundle of dreadlocks. Tattoos now covered her arms, including one he recognized: Kill. Bathe. Repeat. He looked down at his own forearm. He had the same tattoo.
He knew this woman.
It was his wife.
“Delek …” she gasped. “Help … me …”
As Golovkin raised his boot to stomp on Neera’s head, Delek swung his pulse rifle and opened fire. The fusillade caught the fat man in the chest, erupting out his back in a spray of blood and gore. His body crumbled to a heap on the floor next to Neera.
At the sound of gunfire, Delek’s Sentinel colleague, Harlow, rushed into the room. Delek swung the butt of his rifle, knocking Harlow out cold. Harlow’s pulse rifle dropped to the ground. Delek kicked the weapon away, then dragged the man’s unconscious body out of the office, stepped back inside, and locked the deadbolt.
“Delek?” Neera asked tentatively. She struggled to sit up, grinding her teeth against the pain in her ribs as she moved.
“Neera.” Delek rushed over to her and dropped to his knees at her side. “Here, let me …” He gently helped her sit with her shoulder against the couch, then unlocked the electronic cuffs. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been looking for you.” Neera’s arms came free. She flexed her wrists, trying to bring feeling back into her hands.
“Why? What happened?” Delek remembered signing the contract with Syntech. He remembered the transport. The onboarding center. And then … nothing.
The door to the shipping office jumped in its frame as something—or someone—crashed into it. Muffled voices shouted from the other side. Another crash rattled the door, this one accompanied by the sound of cracking wood as the doorframe began to splinter.
“We’ve gotta get out of here.” Neera limped over and retrieved Harlow’s pulse rifle from the floor. “How many others are there?”
“I … I don’t know.” Delek’s mind felt fuzzy, like he had consumed an entire case of Glint in one sitting. He couldn’t even remember where he was or why he was there.
Neera swept her arm across one of the desks, dragging its contents onto the floor. She pressed her hip into the edge. “Help me with this.”
Delek joined Neera. With his extra muscle, the desk slid easily across the carpet until it banged into the wall under the window. Neera hopped up onto the desk and swung the butt of the pulse rifle at the glass, shattering it. She smashed the jagged shards out of the window frame, then pulled herself up onto the ledge. As she swung one leg out the window, she looked back at Delek.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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